The current refugee crisis in Europe is reminiscent of the fall of Berlin in 1989 in terms of its imagery and long-term impact. In 1989, the built-up mass of refugees in Hungary, assisted by Austria, swarmed into Munich when the German government threw its doors wide open. A similar opening of the border by Austria set the spark for the fall of Berlin wall.
In the current crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open up the border to new arrivals without conditions has set a match to a rigid regime of border-closing European Union asylum and immigration policies. With Merkel’s decision to take in refugees from Syria, the much-hated Dublin Regulation which requires refugees to register and stay in the first safe country on the way to Europe has gone up in smoke. On September 9, Merkel said as much by saying that the Dublin Regulation was dead for all practical purposes.
In the current refugee crisis, it was Hungary which was supposed to be the registration site and abode of the distressed refugees according to the Regulation. Yet the Hungarian hostility to the refugees’ arrival and the almost racist terms in which they are portrayed inside Hungary played no negligible part in the decision of the major EU powers to relax all existing asylum and immigration rules to accommodate the current influx of refugees.
With the Germans’ decisive leadership role on refugees, the existing asylum and immigration legislation lies in tatters. From its ashes, a whole new set of rules and regulations, more in tune with trends in global displacement and the European requirements for more immigration where birth rate is perennially low and the elderly population ballooning, is likely to arise.
The current crisis has not descended upon Europe out of thin air; in fact, it was long in the making. The refugees and migrants from the Mediterranean and African countries had been arriving on the shores of Italy, often risking hazardous journey and making fatal landings in recent months and years. The most dramatic illustration was the death on sea of 800 migrants and refugees from Africa en route to Italy in April this year. This route of escape has paralleled another concourse of refugees making their way to Greece in a ceaseless flow.
Despite a clamour for action, nothing concrete materialised in the various EU top-level meetings except some vague commitment to sharing the burden of refugees. This commitment came out in a meeting in May 2015.
Europe faces a big challenge on immigration and asylum front. In recent years, the number of asylum applicants has surged by 44 per cent — from 435,000 in 2013 to 626,000 in 2014. This has coincided with illegal migration at a gargantuan scale. In the first five months of this year, over 153,000 migrants were detected as illegal. The 2015 figure represents an increase of 149 per cent increase over the previous year.
In the meantime, the refugee time-bomb kept building up in Greece and Italy which were the immediate destinations of refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Africa for eventual entry into the safe haven of Europe. In the last week of August and the first week of September, this concourse of desperate humanity on way to Europe came to be concentrated in Hungary, not known for its liberal and humane asylum policies.
The decisive action and Europe-wide support for immediate action to relieve the distress of the stranded refugees would not have been forthcoming had not the picture of a three year baby washed up dead on a Turkish beach made it to the international newspapers. That one image of a child lying lifeless on a Turkish beach galvanised Europe-wide action from both right and left spectrum of the political opinion.
Already, Angela Merkel was reportedly well-disposed towards a whole new approach to the growing refugee crisis. This tragedy added sequential impetus to action with Germanys announcing to take as many as 800,000 refugees. The immediate result was the movement of the first batch of refugees stranded in Hungary to Munich on September 6.
So far, 11000 refugees have streamed into Germany which expects to shoulder the largest bulk of the displaced humanity in foreseeable future. Germany’s decision has forced other EU countries to relax asylum rules. The UK has announced to take in 20,000 with France set to accept another 24,000 refugees from Syria.
In a major speech on September 9, the EU commissioner Junker outlined a new policy of spreading the burden of an estimated 160,000 refugees stranded in Greece, Italy and Hungary among all the EU countries. Yet the new proposal of burden-sharing quota is set to face opposition from Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic which are reportedly well-disposed to accepting refugees through an imposed quota system.
This group of countries has a limited number of migrants and refugee population. Hungary, in particular, has led the anti-immigrant chorus by describing the arrival of Muslim refugees as inimical to European values. However, the outlines of a new asylum and immigration policy unveiled by Junker are becoming slowly clear. The major planks of this policy involve:
1) burden sharing among the EU member countries as Germany, France, UK and Spain are accepting a major share of the refugees in the current crisis;
2) addressing external and wider dimension of the crisis by enhancing aid and engaging with regional governments and regional arrangements;
3) making a new list of safe countries such as Kosovo, Macedonia, Turkey and Albania where the asylum-seekers and refugees can be registered and housed rather than being funneled through to the European destinations.
Whether the new asylum and immigration rules are going to hold depends upon Central and Eastern European countries and also upon the countries on the verge of being included in the new list of safe countries. Angela Merkel is bracing herself for more refugees in future while encouraging the European Union to put in place these emergency measures. Yet what this crisis has revealed is that a new radical and humane asylum and immigration policy is urgently required after the virtual collapse of the Dublin Regulation. The new policy must be humane and in tune with Europe’s future work force needs while actively challenging the far right xenophobic view of asylum and immigration debate.